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OPINION: We should act to head off a water crisis

By Lee Hamilton


The world is approaching a water crisis that will impact the lives of several billion people, according to the World Meteorological Organization. We can’t solve this crisis easily, but there are many things we should do.

One of the most important is to raise public awareness. Many people just don’t know there’s a problem, much less a looming crisis. They don’t know what they can do to help, from choosing water-efficient appliances to supporting better government policies.

We also need better technologies for water treatment and conservation, which will require investing in research and development. Breakthroughs in these areas will yield dividends here in the United States and, especially, in developing countries.

Much of the water we use can be recycled and reused. Systems can be designed in which so-called graywater — water from cleaning and cooking — can be kept separate from sewage, treated lightly, and used to water gardens, flowers, lawns, and crops.

Speaking of crops, agriculture accounts for some of the most intensive uses of water, especially in the Western United States, parts of which are facing severe water shortages. In California, farms use four times as much water as cities. Agriculture is vital, but we can develop irrigation technologies that use less water and favor crops that need less irrigation.

We should adopt pricing schemes that reward consumers for conserving. Some cities and utility systems do this, but not enough. It doesn’t make sense to charge the lowest rates to the biggest and most-wasteful water users.

On the technology front, we can build more salination plants to convert ocean water into fresh water. We have plentiful water in the Earth’s oceans but removing the salt has been expensive. It makes economic sense in places like Saudi Arabia, where water is scarce and energy for running the plants is cheap. As water scarcity expands and technology improves, the equation will change.

A direct source of fresh water is precipitation: rainfall and snowfall. Often this water runs off and disappears before it can be used. We can plant vegetation to slow runoff and use reservoirs and other methods to capture rainfall and glacial meltwater, making it more readily available.

We need to improve our water infrastructure. Many of our water treatment and distribution systems were built when water was plentiful and cheap; they are wasteful and inefficient. In some cities, lead pipes are a health hazard. These systems need to be modernized.

Finally, we will need limits on population growth in vulnerable areas. We shouldn’t promote urbanization in drought-prone regions where it’s expensive to provide the water needed for development. Neither should we encourage building in areas that are at risk of repeated floods.

Many of these actions will take local, state, and national legislation. Changing pricing schemes, regulating population growth, and investing in research and development are all strategies that fall to government.

The looming water crisis is a global crisis and managing it will require international cooperation and treaties to govern the rights and responsibilities of nations. Also, water problems are intrinsically tied to climate change. If we fail to control greenhouse-gas emissions and slow the rate of climate change, managing the water crisis will be much harder.

These are just a few of the steps that we can take, and there are undoubtedly many more. The looming world water crisis is serious. We need to start now by doing what we can.        

Lee Hamilton, 90, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south central Indiana.

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